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Here's How America Would Respond to a Russian Nuclear Attack

Kris Osborn

Nuclear Weapons, Eurasia

It's best for the world if this contingency plan never has to be used.

Here's What You Need to Remember: All of these steps would have to happen simultaneously. 

(Washington, D.C.) Red lights start flashing in rapid succession, space-based infrared sensors detect a heat signature, somebody calls the President...and in what may seem like a matter of seconds, the US launches an immediate, massive counterattack. F-35s, B-2 bombers, nuclear-armed Navy submarines, missile-armed destroyers, Ground Based Interceptors and satellites -- are all instantly thrust into action. Why?

An enemy has launched a nuclear attack on the US homeland, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile packed with destructive power...is heading toward North America.

Just what would the US do? Are there a series of steps, protocols and instant counterattack plans to put in motion instantly? According to US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the answer is “yes.”

Speaking recently at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Nuclear Deterrence event, Goldfein mapped out what he would do if Russia attacked the US with a nuclear weapon. He cited a series of rapid, successive steps.

Step 1 - call NATO.

-- "Should war with a nuclear power happen - and I’m gonna primarily use Russia as my example today as the most dangerous nuclear threat we face - I fully expect three lights to light up on my red switch phone in the office. The first call will be the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe - General Tod Wolters - who will tell me what he needs to join NATO forces to halt enemy activity and blunt their objectives. By virtue of the speed with which air and space component deploys and employs, he expects us (US Air Force) to be the first to arrive as his (halt) and his blunt force. Because NATO is first and foremost a nuclear alliance "-- Gen. Goldfein.

Goldfein extended this thinking to specify that, in an instant, US and NATO forces would launch a massive counterattack including, as he put it, “fighters, bombers, tankers, space, command and control, ISR, cyber, special operations and aeromedical teams trained and ready for high-end warfare.”

This kind of integrated response raises an interesting and relevant question for analysis...what would the respective missions be? Time is, of course, of the essence as millions of lives hang in the balance. An enemy ICBM, after a fast boost-phase launch, will take about 20minutes to travel through space during the mid-course phase -- not much time. However, given the training, forward positioned weapons and range of US assets, there is time to destroy the enemy ICBM and likely … the attackers themselves. While specifics regarding which assets might be part of the plan may not, of course, be available for security reasons...here are a few thoughts for consideration.

Should the attack be several years from now, forward-positioned nuclear-armed F-35As (F-35s will have nuclear weapons by then) would enter enemy airspace to instantly attack enemy air assets, but perhaps of even greater significance, destroy enemy nuclear-launch sites. Should F-35s be close to the attacking country and informed of a potential launch by virtue of US-gathered intelligence information, there may be time for an F-35 to attack the ICBM itself during the boost phase with missiles, guns or even lasers. Pentagon officials say these tactics are now in development. F-22s, often cited as a “first strike, first kill” platform, would likely use supercruise speed to immediately attack enemy targets. An F-22 would likely be launched to quickly engage any potential enemy aircraft, given that it is regarded as the best air-to-air combat platform in the world. Sensors, air-to-air missiles and even dogfighting ability would help ensure air supremacy during any possible counterattack. Also, its speed and stealth configuration might enable it to hit enemy targets faster than other attack options.F-22s

Bombers, such as the B-2, would likely use stealth and altitude to go after enemy air-defenses while themselves eluding enemy radar. Also, like F-35s, B-2s are of course nuclear-armed with weapons such as the B61-12. Given the speed, and potential proximity of these air assets, it seems entirely possible that fighters and bombers might be able to destroy enemy air defenses, nuclear-weapons launch sites or even, if ordered by the President, wipe out entire cities. These air platforms could, potentially, attack enemy targets before a US-launched ICBM could reach its target. With this in mind, it is not by accident that Goldfein mentioned NATO because the US and its allies currently have missile defense assets in places such as Romania, Poland and other strategically-positioned areas. F-35s are also forward positioned in strategically significant places throughout Europe to enable rapid deployment if necessary.

While some European defenses, such as land-based Aegis-fired SM-3s, might primarily function as a way to knock out long-range ballistic missiles traveling within the earth’s atmosphere -- coming from a rogue state such as Iran -- the US and NATO are increasingly strengthening European-based ICBM defense as well. A Congressional Research Report from June 19 called “Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” talks about how the new SM-2 Block IIA is enabling faster development of using Aegis BMD for ICBM defense -- both Terminal phase and the end of space flight or Midcourse phase. Destroyers and cruisers could be better positioned for response by operating in a maritime environment closer to enemy territory or launching enemy missiles. The Congressional report also cites how emerging weapons such as lasers will increasingly contribute to missile defense.

“The potential for ship-based lasers, electromagnetic railguns, and hypervelocity projectiles to contribute in coming years to Navy terminalphase BMD operations and the impact this might eventually have on required numbers of ship-based BMD interceptor missiles,” the report writes.

The Chief’s mention of tankers seems crucial as well; fighters and bombers will likely need extended dwell time over targets and therefore need to be refueled. Goldfein also mentioned Special Operations Forces (SOF), which calls to mind a number of possibilities. First of all, SOF forces regularly operate within the borders of countries considered high-threat areas; in many instances, this presence is specifically designed to deploy highly-trained, mobile ground-units to attack enemy launch points or command and control assets from the ground. Details of this kind of mission would of course - understandably - not be available, but the Pentagon talks often about forward-operating SOF pursuing missions in high-threat areas.

Goldfein’s emphasis upon Russia seems based on a number of factors, not the least of which is the countries’ commitment to an “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear posture and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. Looking more than a decade into the future, an essay from Air University called “Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Their Role in Future Nuclear Forces,” aligns with Goldfein's thinking.

“No other nation (other than Russia) is likely to have a force with the number and accuracy of nuclear weapons needed to threaten US silo-based ICBMs in 2030, although China has the resources and technology to pose a threat by perhaps 2035 if Chinese leaders choose to expand their arsenal,” the essay states. (by Dr. Dennis Evans Dr. Jonathan Schwalbe).

Following his first comment, Goldfein described “Step 2.” Call NORAD

-- "As soon as I hang up with him (NATO Commander) there will be two other lights blinking. And I’ll talk to the NORTHCOM NORAD commander General Terrence O’Shaughnessy and he’ll team - tell me what he needs to support his increased footprint for homeland defense"…- Goldfein. (according to a Mitchell Institute transcript of Goldfein’s remarks)

Homeland defense, it goes without saying, would include the use of Ground-Based Interceptors. These GBIs would be launched into space to find and intercept attacking ICBMs. The Pentagon is fast at work with GBIs, working on new command and control technology, sensors and targeting. Among other things, this primarily involves increasing the technical ability to discern actual warheads from surrounding decoys, debris or other structures. ICBMs not only break up in flight as its warheads and re-entry bodies separate, but they also, by design, travel with decoys to confuse GBI sensors and increase the prospect that a missile will get through. In recent years, the Missile Defense Agency successfully destroyed an ICBM with a GBI, and there is much work going on to not only improve sensors, but integrate multiple interceptors onto a single missile.

Earlier this year, two Raytheon-built Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicles simultaneously destroyed a mock-ICBM in a March test. “One EKV intercepted the target and the other gathered test data in what is known as a ‘two-shot’ salvo engagement,” a Raytheon statement said. In what could be described as a significant step forward when it comes to the aforementioned goal of distinguishing decoys from ICBMs, the Raytheon statement added the “EKV identified the threat, discriminated between the target and countermeasures, maneuvered into the target's path and destroyed it using "hit-to-kill" technology." The EKV was cued by Sea-Based X-band radar and AN/TPY-2 radar.

This development, considered both highly significant and a “first-of-its-kind” technological step forward, does seem to advance the technical infrastructure needed to fire multiple interceptors and integrated systems to increase the probability of an ICBM “kill.” Raytheon is currently working with the Pentagon on this particular task, through the development of an emerging system called Multi-Object Kill Vehilce (MOKV). The new system, to emerge in the early 2020s, leverages advanced sensor technology and engineering to integrate multipe kill vehicles into a single GBI.

As sensor and weapons technologies continue to mature, many senior leaders expect increased coordination between GBIs, satellites and new weapons such as space-based lasers or small drone-like systems able to operate beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Furthermore, there is already ongoing work to extend the range of SM-3s further into space to intercept as well as efforts to develop ship-fired lasers able to operate as advanced sensors to detect enemy weapons.

Step 3 - Nuclear Armed Submarines

Goldfein then cited an often-cited and crucial element of the nuclear triad - nuclear armed ballistic submarines quietly patrolling the undersea. These weapons are, among other things, intended to ensure a massive “second strike” capability to ensure destruction of anyone launching a nuclear attack upon the US. The concept for this is, as one Navy official once put it to me, to tell potential enemies contemplating a nuclear attack on the US….”don’t even think about it.”

-- "But there’ll be one more blinking light on the phone waiting for me and that’ll be the STRATCOM Commander General John Hyten. And he’ll tell me what he needs to generate the nuclear forces required for a safe, secure, effective deterrent against a nuclear armed adversary "-- Goldfein.

Overall, while Goldfein did indicate these steps in a particular order, he emphasized that they would need to happen simultaneously.

-- "Every one of these missions is no-fail. And every one of these missions needs to be accomplished simultaneously" -- Goldfein

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This article by Kris Osborn originally appeared in DefenseMaven in 2019.

Image: Reuters. 

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